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Five Truths of a Personal Journey

While in Sao Paulo, my hosts suggested we go to the movie Wild, a film that tells the story of Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who walked over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to halt the downward spiral her life had become following her mother’s death. While I would never be capable of such a physical and solitude-filled feat, I was drawn by Cheryl’s commitment to the process of discovery that comes with embarking on a personal journey that will change the course of the rest her life.

In the midst of my own journey of discovery, I noticed parallels between Cheryl’s journey and that of mine with Big Shared World. While each person who sets out on a path of reflection is remarkably unique, there are overlapping themes that can be found throughout.

When I first shared the idea with my parents and asked for their approval, my mom said, “Colleen, you don’t need permission to do anything.” Wait, what?!? I can quit my jobs, move my stuff home, and just spend down my savings account while traveling the world for an indefinite period of time?! Her response, “It’s your life. Nobody can tell you what to do and not do. Plus, it makes a lot of sense. This is what you do. You travel the world, it’s always been part of who you are.” After this conversation with my mother, the woman I trust for advice on my most important life decisions, I knew it was entirely up to me to say yes to the journey of my dreams. At that time, it all felt like an ambiguous dream, even myself questioning how exactly it would come together.

In Wild, Cheryl sees a book about the PCT and immediately feels compelled to do it. She doesn’t ask anybody if they approve, she just started to plan for the experience. I can relate to the moment in her hotel room the night before she embarks on the trek. Arms full of supplies, a bag of brand new items from REI – she’s ready as much as she’ll ever be, and at the same time could never be fully ready for what is ahead until it presents itself.

Whether the journey ahead is 1,000 miles, or around the world, it has to be owned by the person who sets out to do it. And once one has decided to leave life as they know it behind and take on this personal endeavor, the rewarding experience is deeper than anything someone could ever give you permission to do.

Not too many people who are extremely satisfied with their job, perfectly settled into life, making regular payments on a house, car, and other expenses, would have the idea to just leave it all behind for a bit and go start a new course. This is what vacation is for – to get away from one’s regular life for a period of time. A life altering journey, however, requires an element of personal freedom, for better or worse, from the above mentioned.

In the film, Cheryl was at a point of no return and needed something completely different to change course. When I originally shared my idea, people said it reminded them of Eat, Pray, Love, a story about a woman who gets divorced, needs change of scenery to change her life, and spends equal time in Italy, India, Indonesia, eventually meeting the love of her life and writing a book about the experience. My initial response to that comparison was that I was not actually trying to eat, pray, love my way out of my real life. Instead, I was trying to take my reality and confront its relationship with the rest of the world. To evaluate myself and my life within the bigger issues of today’s global society. For me, it was a weird time. Working jobs from my couch in a tiny expensive apartment in Washington DC which I lovingly referred to as “my box.” When my sister’s world started to spiral out of control, I spent most days working from her couch in Minnesota. I’d fly back and forth, making my expensive box even less worth the price. With one job naturally coming to an end, the other not completely fulfilling me, and my back of mind desire to write a book, when this idea came up, I thought, YES. I’m going to go. It’s now or never and I’m definitely doing it now.

Cheryl starts the trek repeating with each step, “What the fuck am I doing?” Her friend’s voice in her head, “It’s okay to quit at any time.” She keeps going, she struggles immensely, and is rewarded immensely. She completed her journey and ultimately achieved her goal to discover herself in a new way and move forward in a positive direction when she was finished. And now, that story has been turned into a movie.

My own journey has definitely had moments where I wondered how on earth I thought of doing this thing. While 95% of the experience is full of the most amazing moments of my life, 5% is stressful. I have a friend who I call to vent so that my family doesn’t worry about me in these moments. It may be a long travel day or a confusing one where I took the wrong train or bus, it may be an awkward interaction with someone that has me feel uneasy, or sometimes it may be the ridiculous case of FOMO (fear of missing out) where I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed of friends back home and wonder why I am not wired to desire a more “normal” life. In these fortunately few and far between moments, I call this friend and say, “Ugh. This happened. And while I know I am so fortunate to be on the most incredible journey of my life, I had a bad day and need to tell someone about it.” He listens, lets me vent, then reminds me that it is a temporary situation, and tomorrow is a new day, where I will likely be in a new place, needing to be open and excited to take in all that entails. And then I get to that new place, or that new conversation, and it all feels right again.

I’ve been traveling about three months – October in the United States, November in Western Europe, and since 2015 in Latin America. At first, I would get mad at myself if I didn’t do enough, talk to enough people, see enough of a place… but then, I’d have an amazing interaction with someone that would not have happened if anything leading up to that moment was different. So I started to find peace in whatever way things went and realized that there was no such thing as a perfectly planned day or checklist of how to spend my time wherever I was. I accepted that the best way to experience this journey was to become fully available to the moment I was in, whatever that entailed.

Near the end of the film, Cheryl passes a young boy and his grandmother on the trail. It felt intentional, whether it be God or whatever force that brought the two to each other, it was a spiritual moment. I have had those interactions with people that feel like the questions I ask have done more for them than for my own understanding of their answers. As people thank me for interrupting their day, my heart fills up with the ability to do what I am doing. These interactions are just the beginning of moments of confirmation that this journey is worthwhile and exactly where I need to be. I have no idea what next week will look like, where I will be, what I will do, who I will meet. For friends who wish to meet up with me along the journey, this is endlessly frustrating. But for me, and the journey, it’s a beautiful feeling to be free and open to wherever the road takes me.

From the start of this whole endeavor, people have not only been supportive, but have encouraged me by telling my how inspired they are by the fact that I am even doing it. Everyone can relate to a journey because we all are on one – life. Some people are able to leave “normal life” behind more easily, or are more compelled to leave it behind. We all have struggles, desires, frustrations, and dreams. Everyone knows the value of experiences in their own life that changed their course forever, and people respect you for making a commitment to a new direction in a very big way.

Whether it be Wild, Eat Pray Love, The Motorcycle Diaries, An Idiot Abroad… the list is endless of people who, like myself, just went. They go, they come home, and they are likely to never regret the experience that compelled them to leave normal life behind for a bit and experience the world in a way they could never do without giving themselves permission to step outside their comfort zone and see what comes.

The beautiful sisters and voices of First Aid Kit singing the theme song from Wild:

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